New work for the Downtown Running Club. Five years strong, I decided it was time to make something more representative of the club’s vibe. The custom type is inspired by downtown sidewalk brickwork and it’s laid on top of a Birmingham manhole cover.
A detailed post documenting this project might eventually happen. Leave it at this for now: designing maps is a tricky wicket. Everyone reads maps differently. People have varied spatial reasoning abilities. There is little consensus on priorities, which is actually a little surprising if you think about it. Needless to say I’m a little on pins and needles waiting to get a week’s worth of feedback from visitors and coworkers. I have a near allergic reaction to “design by committee,” though iterative beta testing isn’t quite the same, it’s a little unnerving.
And, to make it trickier, we’re renaming the floors of the Museum. Instead of “1, 2, and 3,” we’re hoping “Ground, 1, and 2” will make more sense to the visitors. Of course it means some janky testing while we wait for new elevator buttons to come in.
Design process. I’m sure I could find a “hand cut” or “cut paper” font that is close to Akzidenz Grotesk. But, I use Akzidenz Grotesk daily for the Museum’s branded materials and I wanted to keep a crafty, hand-made aesthetic on brand, I printed out the alphabet and hand cut it. It was fun to craft hands-on analog design materials. Granted, I made the alphabet and then laid out the copy in Photoshop rather than cutting out the entire design… but I’m a one person shop, so I gotta make concessions somewhere.
Exceptionally high standards and harsh self-scrutiny. Add a dash of depression and the result is a mild existential career crisis. I’ve struggled for a while wondering what I really want to do with my career. I felt stagnant, perhaps worked myself through logical reduction to think that my work was without merit, feeble in impact, worthless. Becoming aware of the cycle, I feel like I’m slowly working out of it. But sometimes the real push comes from unexpected places. Like an NPR story about the LA riots after the Rodney King verdict.
To paraphrase, the report frames the riot as a life changing moment for the subject. He was a teenager living in South Central, falling into the wrong crowd, etc. To prove his manliness he participated in the riots, stealing a boombox and some CDs. Looking at the floor he noticed a CD with a strange cover, a naked baby swimming after a dollar. Fascinated, he added it to his plunder. The first listen blew his mind. Smells Like Teen Spirit became the soundtrack of the riots, and Nirvana led him on a deep musical journey. He moved, and rather than falling back into the gang crowd, he started wearing flannel, became a punk, but eventually went on to school and is now working in IT. He credits that copy of Nevermind with changing is life, ultimately, making the riots a positive turning point in his life.
While listening to the story, I thought of the way stories of music changing someones life are commonplace. But what about the design of the record cover… the very thing that prompted the kid to steal the CD in the first place. I couldn’t help but wonder how would Robert Fisher, art director, and Kirk Weddle, photographer react to the story. When he art directed that photo shoot, did he ever have any idea that it might prompt a kid to steal it, and ultimately change, perhaps save, his life.
And, surprisingly, my mind actually turned to the positive, thinking of the unknown impact my work might have had in the last 14 years, 11 of them working for the Museum. In a college critique, I experienced the potential for design to change minds when a classmate said my poster for organ donation had made him reconsider it. He had changed his mind, thinking now that he would become and organ donor. It’s been easy to forget that anecdote over the years, or at least let it fade from mind. I create work, and outside my coworkers, rarely hear any feedback, with attendance or engagement with Museum programs as a means of measuring success. And even then, my work is only a part of the equation that brings people to the Museum.
But, doing some back of the napkin math, there have likely been 1.5 million visits to the Museum since I’ve been the graphic designer. I’ve designed materials for dozens of exhibitions, and probably hundreds of programs. The chances that any one of those given visits or programs has deeply affected someone, possibly changing the course of their life, well, there’s probably a decent chance. It’s a humbling thought to consider. It’s also the fulfillment of my decision to work at a Museum.
This is something I need to keep in mind more often. To stop and appreciate a little more often. There are many reasons I hold myself back from appreciating the things I have accomplished, or the impact I have had on the world around me. The internalization of so much self-doubt and criticism. I’ve allowed it to debilitate me for a long time.
New Museum work.
A poster for an upcoming lecture / performance by the Iraqi-born artist Hayv Kahraman. I didn’t feel the need to work too conceptually, as the title of the program set with the artist’s work does most of the heavy lifting. Often when talking to others about my work, they assume as a designer it must be great, or very inspiring, to have so much great imagery to work with. The truth is that it can be a real struggle to work around much of the time. Three dimensional can just be tricky, working in the inherently flat space of print design. Prints and paintings can work better, but there are often restrictions on cropping, or overlaying text. Anything that alters the work. This was not a case where I was frustrated by many of the complications I face. With the scalloped canvas shape, much of the layout worked itself out quite logically along a strong grid. Everything was kept within Museum branding, a lot of Akzidenz Grotesk. And then the icing was the artist quote. Much of her work deals with architecture, particularly as it relates to the separation of men and women in traditional Iraqi culture. I wanted a layout element that referenced the curve of the canvas corners, and draping the quote over the other elements served that purpose well, serving as a lovely arch anchoring all the pieces together. It also gave me a place to pop a bit of red with the artist’s name, mirroring her red signature in the upper left of the canvas.
Another element that was fun to resolve is the sub-branding of the Friend Lecture itself. Since having the Museum rebranding in 2015, I’ve still struggled with a systematic way to handle all of the additional programming the Museum undertakes. Working on a requested “logo” for our Junior Patrons a week or so ago, I resolved a system that can attach to the logo from anchor points on all four corners of the logo. Using the same stroke width, a holding shape for the sub brand projects from a corner of the Museum logo. Everything is locked according to spacing double the stroke width of the logo and holding shape. To contrast with the general Museum brand, the sub brands are set in a condensed version of Akzidenz Grotesk. Each sub brand can be presented with or without the Museum name. The original brand standards included the suggestion of a branding strip that would be used on posters and advertising. A convenient place to lock the logo and vital information. I’ve continued to use, or at least reference, the branding strip in most Museum materials. In this sub-branding scheme, the bar is rethought a little, now also becoming a holding shape with the same stroke width of the logo.
Recent Museum work.
Poster for the first Third Space Chapters program. A conversation between artist Glenn Kaino and Tommie Smith, Olympic gold medalist famous for raising his fist in silent protest at the 1968 Olympics. Bridge, created by Kaino, consisted of 200 bronzed pieces cast from Tommie Smith’s arm, suspended in an undulating wave in a large warehouse. The piece was built in sections so it could be distributed across the country. Bridge (Section 1 of 6) was recently acquired by the Museum.
Another spring, another severe weather warning in Alabama. First the Museum delayed opening. Then we were sent home early. Fortunately, the severity of the weather never met expectations. Working from the couch at home, I made do, as one does, with a little IPA to go along with working on website mock-ups.
Prepping new method and format. Undercoat of black gesso on 24 x 24 inch board.
I’ve been creating 5 x 7 block prints, then projecting to 36 x 48 canvases for years now. It’s the working method for all of my Sloss and Birmingham Mandala projects. It’s a big and labor intensive process. So, time for a change.
This is for a new series of images. They all began as Instagram photos, more or less all showing spaces that aren’t intended for people, but through which people sometimes find themselves navigating. Parking lots. Parking structures. Interstate underpasses. Rather than creating a block print, I’ve refined and redrawn each image in Procreate on my iPad. This started as a way to play around and experiment with the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, but has become a more refined process. And now, rather than produce a block print, I’m printing out the image, then will project it on the prepared wood. From that point, the process will still be similar to previous canvases. Masking tape. X-Acto. Etc.
More process photos to come I imagine.
The circus is in town. Stopped in traffic on my way home, the shipping containers lined the center lane of the road. Next to me, this. Clearly an older container, still featuring a hand painted Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey logo. The many typographic oddities of the logo hold up better when painted, adding just the right amount of wonky and wrong to make the Victorianesque logo work.
The circus looms large in my mind, a memory from my early childhood. Attending with my father and first step-mother. I remember going regularly, but honestly it could have only been a couple of times. Though I haven’t been in decades, it feels weird to think it’s going away.
The Museum will open the largest contemporary exhibition curated from the permanent collection. The exhibition highlights many of the collecting themes the Museum has followed the last twenty or so years. A focus on under-represented viewpoints. A highlight of the “other.”
Third Space frames issues of the Global South within the framework or prism of the American South. It is impossible to look at art in Birmingham, Alabama, without the baggage of the location. What does it mean to examine the perspectives of artists grappling with exile, representation, identity, and more in this place. How have these issues been confronted in Birmingham, or the American South. A place that has more in common with struggling regions around the world than it does with cities or regions in the United States.
But more, in the context of current events. Current attitudes. What can this art teach us about ourselves and those around us? In a sense, all art is political. And the art in this exhibition isn’t necessarily easy to look at, or easy to digest. Some is beautiful. Some is ugly. But all of it has a story to tell. A story that is worth listening to, or worth digging into and trying to understand.
I won’t lie. This exhibition has tested many of us at the Museum. The scale, the production timelines. The interpersonal things that develop within a staff committed to what they are doing, but not always seeing eye to eye. But in the end, I feel this is a very important exhibition, regardless of the stress it has caused me personally.
We all need a little more empathy. A little more understanding. An expansion of our perceptions. And if this exhibition can guide viewers to that, I think it will be worth the struggle we’ve put into it.
I hope you will consider coming to it. The opening event will likely be big, and full of people, and hopefully fun. I’m curious to see the reaction of people to a potentially heavy exhibition in the context of a party… I hope it piques people’s’ curiosity and encourages repeated visits. Walking through the gallery a few times during the installation process, I’ve certainly noticed new things each time.